Updated 7 Sept 16: To add in a reference to this excellent piece by @jameswilsdon.

Writing in The Atlantic, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson argue that the US president needs a new Council of Historical Advisers. They write:

We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers. Historians made similar recommendations to Presidents Carter and Reagan during their administrations, but nothing ever came of these proposals. Operationally, the Council of Historical Advisers would mirror the Council of Economic Advisers, established after World War II. A chair and two additional members would be appointed by the president to full-time positions, and respond to assignments from him or her. They would be supported by a small professional staff and would be part of the Executive Office of the President.

Their starting assumption, which is undoubtedly true, is that policy makers might be a bit wiser with a deeper appreciation of history. Based on this assertion, they suggest that academia needs a new field, “applied history” in which its “ultimate goal would be to find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences.”

There already is such a field or fields which go by names such as public policy, policy analysis, policy studies, policy sciences and more. Such fields are by their nature both historical in orientation and applied in perspective.

The call for academic historians to have the ear of the president follow in a long tradition of calls for academics to be closer to political leaders. In 2013, James Wilsdon took a close look at such calls in a British context arguing, “an approach to expert advice built primarily on academic disciplines quickly unravels.

The physics community has had the most success in such strategies, securing a “science advisor” to the US president (see this paper in PDF). But even this “victory” has been fairly shallow, as the US science advisor is really just a glorified budget examiner advocating for more money for science from the inside – valuable for the science lobby but often not much more.

More recently there has been a surge of calls for “science advisors” – to the EU, the UN, and various governments around the world. Such calls have been met with modest success, if success is defined as a getting a seat at the table where decisions are made. But in terms of better decisions being made because of such institutional innovations, the evidence is pretty paltry.

Economics offers another analogy proposed by Allison and Ferguson, but it is not really analogous. There is such a thing as economic policy, but there really isn’t such a thing as “history policy.” History is better thought of not as a basis for a specific subset of policies, but rather, an important element in thinking about any policy.

Writing in the FT over the weekend, Gillian Tett gets to the reductio ad adsurdum of such calls for disciplinarians as political advisers:

I think Allison and Ferguson should go even further: the next president would probably benefit from a Council of Psychology Advisers, not to mention a Council of Cultural Anthropology Advisers, but don’t bet on this happening anytime soon.

The notion of philosopher kings and queens helping to steer the ship of state is enticing. It is also incredibly self-serving. Policy makers do need to be better informed about history and physics and psychology and anthropology and economics and everything else. Training in policy could certainly benefit from greater attention to history and historians, of that I have no doubt. The answer to this challenge however is not to replicate academic silos within governments. The challenge is to figure out other ways to integrate expertise with decision making.

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